Palaeontologists reveal a 240-million-year-old ‘Chinese Dragon’ as Chinese Year of the Dragon dawns

Discovery of ‘Chinese dragon’, strange marine reptile fossils outlined in Royal Society of Edinburgh journal.

An international team of scientists have described new fossils of Dinocephalosaurus orientalis – a five-metre-long aquatic reptile from the Triassic period of China, dating to around 240 million years old. The reptile was originally identified in 2003, but the discovery of additional specimens has allowed scientists to depict the bizarre long-necked creature in full for the very first time.

With 32 separate neck vertebrae Dinocephalosaurus orientalis had an extraordinarily long neck that draws comparison with the neck of Tanystropheus hydroides, another strange marine reptile from the Middle Triassic of both Europe and China.

Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Editor-in-Chief of the RSE’s academic journal Transactions, Professor Robert Ellam FRSE said: “This remarkable marine reptile is another example of the stunning fossils that continue to be discovered in China”.

Both reptiles were of similar size and have several features of the skull in common, including a fish-trap type of dentition. However, Dinocephalosaurus is unique in possessing many more vertebrae both in the neck and in the torso, giving the animal a much more snake-like appearance.

‘Chinese dragon’, Dinocephalosaurus orientalis

The reptile was clearly very well adapted to an oceanic lifestyle, as indicated by the flippered limbs and exquisitely preserved fishes in its stomach region. Despite superficial similarities, Dinocephalosaurus was not closely related to the famous long-necked plesiosaurs that only evolved around 40 million years later and which were the inspiration for the Loch Ness Monster. The fossils were discovered in Guizhou Province, southern China.

Dr Nick Fraser FRSE, Keeper of Natural Sciences at National Museums Scotland said: “This discovery allows us to see this remarkable long-necked animal in full for the very first time. It is yet one more example of the weird and wonderful world of the Triassic that continues to baffle palaeontologists. We are certain that it will capture imaginations across the globe due to its striking appearance, reminiscent of the long and snake-like, mythical Chinese Dragon.”

Artist impression of Dinocephalosaurus orientalis swimming alongside prehistoric fish known as Saurichthys | credit: Marlene Donelly

Researchers from Scotland, Germany, America, and China studied the fossil over the course of ten years at the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology, Beijing, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Professor Li Chun from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology said: “This has been an international effort. Working together with colleagues from the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Europe, we used newly discovered specimens housed at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to build on our existing knowledge of this animal. Among all of the extraordinary finds we have made in the Triassic of Guizhou Province, Dinocephalosaurus probably stands out as the most remarkable.”

Dr Stephan Spiekman, a postdoctoral researcher based at the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History, said: “As an early-career researcher, it has been an incredible experience to contribute to these significant findings. We hope that our future research will help us understand more about the evolution of this group of animals, and particularly how the elongate neck functioned.”

The paper describing the animal is published in full in the academic journal Earth and Environmental Science: Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh – forming the entirety of the latest volume. The journal was first published in 1788.

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